Gender, age, genetics, family history, personal history and race are just some of the risk factors associated with breast cancer. For instance, inheriting a mutated form of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which under normal conditions are protective against breast cancer, increases ones risk. Breast cancer has many factors that contribute to its development. What oncologists are finding out is that breast cancer is not one cancer but many subtypes of cancer. The breast cancer subtypes are based on three receptors:
- Estrogen receptors
2. Progesterone receptors
3. Human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2)
Commonly used treatments for breast cancer mainly target these receptors. Breast cancers that are estrogen receptor positive (meaning the breast tumor grows when the hormone attaches itself to the receptor site) will respond to anti-estrogen drugs like Tamoxifen. So treating breast cancers that are estrogen, progesterone or HER2 positive means that drug therapy blocking these receptor sites can help treat breast cancer in those patients.
But, what happens when the tumors don’t have any of these receptors. This is exactly the case with triple negative breast cancer. The triple negative form of breast cancer gets its name because it lacks all three receptors and treating it with hormone therapy is ineffective. In the US, approximately 180,000 women are diagnosed with some form of invasive breast cancer and 15% of them have triple negative breast cancer. This type of breast cancer is rare, aggressive and difficult to treat. The only form of treatment for women with triple negative breast cancer is chemotherapy.
According to Dr. Funmi Olopade, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, patients responding well to chemotherapy have a better chance at survival. Unfortunately, the challenge for doctors and their patients is dealing with triple negative breast cancer when it reoccurs. There isn’t an effective way to treat this form of cancer when it returns because the chance of survival is not good. While more research is needed to understand triple negative breast cancer, screening is the best measure to allow for early detection. Early detection means, “Many of the women are surviving. They are beating the odds of dying because they know they can do preventive approaches to reduce their risk of dying,” Dr. Olopade said.
For more information on triple negative breast cancer check out the TNBC Foundation for news, updates and the latest on clinical trials.